Harry Sterling: Christians targeted in Middle East conflicts

These are grim days for Christians in Egypt and Syria. Ominously, black “X” signs began appearing on the walls of Christian churches in Egypt and other buildings associated with Egypt’s Coptic Christians.

According to Christian groups calling for help from Canada and other countries, the black Xs are intended to identify targets for enraged Muslims to attack during the violence in Egypt unleashed following the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Muhammad Morsi by the Egyptian military.

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Christian groups expect the Stephen Harper government’s much-touted Office for Religious Freedom to make certain Canada’s serious concerns over the threats faced by Christians abroad are made clear to Egyptian and other Middle East governments, emphasizing their responsibility to ensure all members of society, including Christians, have their rights and security protected.

In Syria, Christians have also come under attack, primarily because opposition forces trying to overthrow the Alawite-dominated regime of President Bashar Assad claim the Christian minority — nine per cent of the 15 million population — sat on the fence when the Sunni majority (72 per cent) rose up against the Alawite minority (11 per cent).

Although most of Syria’s Christians attempted to stay on the sidelines in the fighting against the Assad regime, many in the predominantly Sunni opposition saw the Christians as implicitly backing Assad.

The plight of Christians in that region is not a new phenomenon.

After the ascendancy of Muslim rulers in the Middle East, Christians had restrictions placed on them. However, their status eventually became formalized by Caliph Umar, who treated Christians as “protected people” (dhimmi) with the right to worship in their own religion on condition of obedience to Muslim rulers, and subject to payment of a special tax (jizya) and certain limitations.

The turmoil and violence in Egypt and Syria has caused Christians again to become targets for elements within those societies who have viewed them as infidels refusing to convert to the Muslim religion.

Paradoxically, the very leaders across the Middle East who have been overthrown in countries such as Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen — or fighting for their survival like Assad — had kept the lid on extremist groups within their nations.

In effect, the so-called Arab Spring has become like the mythical Pandora’s Box. Once it was opened, what emerged was not some kind of western version of democracy and instant respect for the basic rights of all, but rather ancient grievances, religious intolerance and power-seeking by extremist religious groups who do not believe in democracy, totally open elections or guaranteed rights for all sectors of society, including females and non-Muslim religions.

The result of these convulsions within the Middle East is unlikely to be resolved through elections, since there is little tradition in the region for societies accepting the peaceful resolution of differing political and religious views. Morsi’s actions to implement policies that advanced only the views of the Muslim Brotherhood and his attempt to grant himself no restrictions on his powers were key factors in much of the Egyptian population turning against him, even asking the military to intervene. Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were quick to denounce the Christian community for joining secularists and liberals in bringing about Morsi’s overthrow.

While the Muslim Brotherhood has been seriously weakened by the military’s intervention, no one should assume it is finished as a force. The Brotherhood has been a factor in Egypt since its 1928 founding.

Its leaders have been regularly imprisoned, including Morsi, but still managed to continue their struggle to implement their fundamentalist religious views, which do not include the Christian faith.

It’s a reality Egyptian Christians are keenly aware of as they contemplate their own survival and future.


Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator.

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